Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the practice of cleansing, what benefits it might have and when it might be appropriate. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic medicine see patterns of human health as being closely tied to the fluctuations of the natural world around us. When patients ask me about doing a cleanse, my advice varies depending on the time of year.
Although gentle forms of cleansing can probably be safely undertaken at any time of year, I generally don’t recommend it in fall and winter because this is the storage phase of the annual cycle. If you look at what’s happening with wildlife in the fall, most creatures, from squirrels to bears to trees, are storing food – in their roots, hidden in a nest, buried in the ground, or in their own body fat. Through the winter, they’re living frugally off these stored resources and expending less energy. Even though humans are more disconnected than ever from this cycle, I still think it’s worth waiting until the spring to do a more challenging cleanse.
In spring, the activity level of the world around us ramps up dramatically. Birds start singing, bugs start crawling, squirrels start playing, buds start opening, and the sun obliges all this new activity by shining brighter and longer. Just as winter coats start peeling off, we might feel good with a little internal cleanse.
One of the simplest ways to stimulate the clearing of accumulated gunk is through exercise and sweating, which should always be paired with good hydration. Since everything moves in the human body via liquid pathways, water is a vital medium for change. Sweating has long been considered a temperature regulating mechanism, but recent studies show that sweating plays a more important role in detoxification than previously thought. Sweating is instrumental in removing heavy metals and petrochemicals, such as the plastic components bisphenol-A and phthalates, from the body. The research appears to show that certain toxins are preferentially eliminated through sweating, and in some cases, toxins were found in the sweat that were undetectable in the blood or urine.
I always encourage people to know their limits when exercising. If you regularly feel exhausted after exercise, it’s too much for you. You’re likely exceeding your capacity. I’ve had many patients who have antagonized a condition of inner depletion through overly-intense exercise or excessive sweating. For this reason, if detoxification is your goal and you don’t have the energy to accomplish pronounced sweating through physical exertion, sauna is sometimes a better way to go. Infrared and far-infrared saunas may be more effective than traditional ones, but any way of heating up your body works.
Especially if the sauna is not too hot (below 140 degrees Fahrenheit), you can rest during a long session of mild sweating and achieve the detoxifying effects without simultaneous exertion. Aim for a rate of sweating that just produces glistening on the skin, not dripping. Remember to replenish with water and electrolytes.
Exfoliating and enhancing blood and lymph circulation under the skin may enhance the efficiency of detoxification through the skin. One of my favorite ways to do this is through dry skin brushing. You can get a natural, plant-fiber skin brush at most body-care stores and natural grocers. Traditionally, skin brushing is done with repeated vigorous (but gentle) strokes, starting at the extremities and working toward the heart. Cover your whole body, moving from your feet to your torso, from your hands to your torso, and then covering the torso itself, scrubbing without causing pain, until your skin is uniformly pink. We like to follow this with a shower and some self-massage using the oil of your preference (our favorites are cold-pressed grapeseed, almond, coconut, jojoba, apricot, and sesame).
Dr. Peter Borten
 Genuis, Stephen J., Sanjay Beesoon, Rebecca A. Lobo, and Detlef Birkholz. “Human Elimination of Phthalate Compounds: Blood, Urine, and Sweat (BUS) Study.” The Scientific World Journal 2012 (2012): 1-10. Web.
 Genuis, Stephen J., Sanjay Beesoon, Detlef Birkholz, and Rebecca A. Lobo. “Human Excretion of Bisphenol A: Blood, Urine, and Sweat (BUS) Study.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2012 (2012): 1-10. Web.
 Sears, Margaret E., Kathleen J. Kerr, and Riina I. Bray. “Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Sweat: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2012 (2012): 1-10. Web.
 Genuis, Stephen J., Detlef Birkholz, Ilia Rodushkin, and Sanjay Beesoon. “Blood, Urine, and Sweat (BUS) Study: Monitoring and Elimination of Bioaccumulated Toxic Elements.” Arch Environ Contam Toxicol Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 61.2 (2010): 344-57. Web.